Preserving the Beauty of the Beautiful Game

"...the larger picture painted by the rare miscall is one that celebrates human spirit: the referees, like the players, are human, and it is the lens of human error that magnifies human triumph." Young Bootleg writer Justin Muchnick loves American football, but maintains a massive place in his heart and soul for the beautiful game!

Preserving the Beauty of the Beautiful Game: A Case Against Goal-Line Technology

July, 1966. Overtime in the World Cup Final. England’s Geoff Hurst controls a cross, turns past a German defender, and fires a shot. The ball ricochets off the bottom of the crossbar and back into the field of play. After a moment’s hesitation and a brief conference with his linesman, the referee signals for a goal. English players victoriously prance about the field while the Germans hang their heads in disbelief, but, to this day, aficionados of soccer history still debate whether the ball fully crossed the goal-line.

            This famous play highlights the referee’s role in soccer. While jersey styles and tactical formations have evolved over the years, the responsibilities of today’s referees remain nearly identical to those of the referees of 1966 and earlier. In fact, when Zinedine Zidane’s penalty kick in the 2006 World Cup Final bounced off the bar and near the goal-line, the referee made a decision using the same officiating technique – a short talk with his assistant followed by a binding judgment call – that was used in 1966. This continuity is soccer’s underappreciated backbone; it ensures that soccer does not degenerate into a sport foreign to soccer fans. Yet FIFA has violated this continuity, along with other core tenets of the Beautiful Game, by supporting goal-line technology. The decision to begin implementing this technology in the World Cup must be revoked.

The atrocity of goal-line technology transcends merely challenging the authority of the referee; it indicates that FIFA has betrayed what the referee’s power stands for. With a system that electronically informs a referee whether the ball has crossed the line, FIFA has turned its back on the game’s longstanding support of human interpretation. While other sports consistently expand their rulebooks to give instructions for every possible scenario, The Laws of the Game only provides the basic framework for each rule. Consequently, referees are encouraged to use subjectivity as a decision-making tool. For example, The Laws state that a referee should caution a player who demonstrates “unsporting behavior.” Each referee interprets this passage slightly differently: some tightly reign in physicality, others are more stringent on vulgarities, and so on. Thus, The Laws support human interpretation by forcing the individual referee to develop his own understanding of each rule. Non-sentient computers, however, are incapable of interpretation and therefore have no place in a sport both played and mediated by subjective humans. Granting a computer the authority to influence the flow of the game in any way, even if the calls that it makes are objective, contradicts the idea that humans, both the ones scoring goals and the ones calling them, give the Beautiful Game its beauty.

            Indeed, goal-line technology would make soccer more accurate. But is mechanical accuracy what would truly be best for this game? One of the most tragically graceful moments of soccer history is the penalty kick that lost the 1994 World Cup, when midfield maestro Roberto Baggio sent his shot sailing far over the goal. The famous image of a weeping Baggio, a living legend reduced to his knees, illustrates the pressure, exhaustion, and, yes, beauty of the sport. In the same way that brilliant playmakers sometimes do not make these crucial plays, referees also occasionally err. In the immediate wake of a referee’s mistake, fans sometimes wish that infallible technology could have saved their team from conceding a “phantom goal.” But the larger picture painted by the rare miscall is one that celebrates human spirit: the referees, like the players, are human, and it is the lens of human error that magnifies human triumph.

            While American football has implemented the video replay system and tennis has popularized trajectory-prediction computers, soccer has, until now, resisted the temptation of modernization. Soccer was not destined to become a sport bogged down in legislation concerning which types of plays warrant replay evidence or how best to renovate stadiums to accommodate computer hardware. Rather, soccer at its core is happiness – the synthesis of a ball, an open space, and a group of smiling humans. Soccer is hope – a tattered Michael Essien jersey draped over the emaciated frame of an impoverished Ghanaian child. Soccer is understanding – the reason that millions of human beings from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the rooftops of Tokyo can communicate through a universal language of footsteps and unadulterated passion.

And in that split second of silence after a national hero taps a sphere past a white line but before the nation that idolizes him erupts in gleeful chaos, soccer is an indescribable patchwork of anticipation, euphoria, and love. But FIFA has deemed human emotion irrelevant by using the mechanical whirs of computers to define that awe-inspiring moment. Dare we, as disciples of the game, stand idly by as goal-line technology taints the sanctity of soccer? Dare we let the next generation misconstrue Geoff Hurst’s goal, a true testament to the human element of the Beautiful Game, as an unfortunate ambiguity from an age before software and sensors?

About the Author: A native of Newport Beach, CA, Justin Muchnick is a current student-athlete at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. In addition to being an avid Stanford sports fan, he's the author of 'Straight-A Study Skills' and the newly-released 'Boarding School Survival Guide'

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